Gore Vidal died last night. I’ve been a fan of his for about 50 years now. I picked up his novel Messiah, liked that somewhat, then picked up Julian, about the Roman emperor who tried to roll back Christianity as the state religion, and reinstate paganism. I’ve always felt that Christianity made a big mistake in becoming part of, if not the whole establishment. I think Christians generally behaved better when they were being persecuted, as opposed to doing the persecuting. And I don’t think paganism was that terrible.
But all that is beside the point. Not only was Vidal an entertaining writer, but he was, as one article already out this morning put it, a truth-teller, which tended to make powerful people nervous. He didn’t pull his punches about the failings of American government, or the people who made it fail. He wrote a play about Richard Nixon, in which Nixon’s dialogue was taken directly from actual quotes. He also reportedly got into an on-screen altercation with William F. Buckley, whom he called (as best I recall) a cryptofascist. Buckley responded elegantly by calling Vidal a faggot. I’ve always regretted not having witnessed that exchange.
That’s something Vidal never denied, writing a novel about a homosexual man early in his career, at a time when that wasn’t a very safe thing to do. In his autobiography he said that people connected with the New York Times told him his books would never be reviewed there again. All because he belonged to a despised group, rather than because of the quality of his writing.
One of the articles I read this morning said that Vidal had told the author this was one of the first things that began moving him from the right to the left. He mentioned several other things in the article, but left out an anecdote that Vidal told in the first of his two autobiographical books, Palimpsest. About 1950 he bought a house in Guatemala, which had a democratic government at the time, and became friends with one of the people working in the government, who was also a poet. He and Vidal would frequently have political discussions, which Vidal found interesting, as his political views were fairly conservative at the time. Vidal had been brought up in Washington, DC, because his father was in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, and his grandfather had been a US Senator for many years.
One night his friend told him that democracy was probably going to end in Guatemala, and that Henry Cabot Lodge had something to do with that. This, Vidal said, gave him pause, as he had known Lodge as a visitor to his father’s house, and considered him a nice man. The reason, his friend told him, was because the Guatemalan government was trying to tax the United Fruit Company, which had large plantations in the country. The downfall of democracy in Guatemala didn’t happen immediately, but perhaps two or three years later, and from what I read, the CIA was involved. And my impression, without having read anything about the area recently, is that Guatemala has pretty much been a hellhole ever since.
One thing in which Vidal was unique was in having been a political insider. Not only had his grandfather been in national politics for many years, and his father served in FDR’s cabinet, but he was close to the Kennedys for at least part of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, probably because one of his stepfathers married Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother. His view of the inner workings was necessarily incomplete, but still a different perspective from most who write about politics.
I liked a lot of Vidal’s books, including Myra Breckinridge, Myron (in which he used the names of Supreme Court Justices for common swear words), Two Sisters, and his series of novels set in America, beginning with Burr (chronologically, but not in the order published), and ending with The Golden Age. A few years ago I read the whole series in chronological order, after a friend had repeated to me an episode from Burr, which I had forgotten, in which Aaron Burr is visiting Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson comments on how much more black men are endowed than whites. Burr responds (I think he was asked to comment), “My research is incomplete.” A very useful line. I was rather surprised, though, to find that of the whole series, I liked Washington, DC the best. It seemed to me to have an intensity the others lacked, perhaps because it was the closest to being autobiographical.
I didn’t like all his novels, and haven’t read all of them, but I suspect I’ve read the best of them. And I’ve always liked his political views. He was disappointed that America had so frequently not lived up to its promise, and fervently wished it would. Maybe that had something to do with both his living (especially when he was writing) much of the time in Italy, but also with his two runs for elective office. He lost both times, but neither race, it seems, was a blowout. His father and grandfather (Thomas P. Gore) had both been public servants (at a time when that phrase may have meant more than it does today), and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done if he’d been elected. Too bad he wasn’t.
I remember hearing a soundbite from him two or three years ago. I don’t remember if it was associated with any particular occasion, but this (as best I can remember it) was it: “The empire is finished, and so is the republic.” I don’t have any objection to the empire being ended, if it is, but I’d like the republic to continue. I’m afraid the odds against it may have gotten higher, but I hope to be proven wrong on that.
I think Vidal will be missed in a lot of ways, but I suspect, at least from my point of view, most as a political commentator. He spoke for a lot of us who felt that America wasn’t behaving well, and ought to be listening more to its “better angels”, as Abraham Lincoln put it. He had a correspondence with Timothy McVeigh, initiated by McVeigh after he had been imprisoned, and depicted McVeigh as someone disappointed in America, though the actions McVeigh took were certainly wrong-headed, to say the least. Vidal sympathized with McVeigh’s feelings, though not what he’d done about them. He commented later that McVeigh represented the failure of the American Dream. That failure has become even more obvious since, and if Vidal were still around as a younger man, I’m certain he would be fighting to reverse American failures. He did that during his lifetime, and though he didn’t do it alone, it must have sometimes felt that way. Certainly mainstream politicians resisted debate about the issues he raised. Mainstream media didn’t ignore him, but it didn’t greatly support him either. I certainly hope that he doesn’t get forgotten, and that his memory is served by a revitalization of the best aspects of the democratic spirit.